Panic attacks. Causes, symptoms, prevention and treatment

Updated 2 years ago on April 08, 2023

A panic attack is a sudden anxiety attack, a terrifying fear that can end in real hysteria.

It usually starts at stressful moments for the body. For example, when you ride the subway in the heat or find yourself in a stuffy crowd. It is most common in large cities, and it affects people with high anxiety, usually perfectionists. Alas, in most cases, panic attacks occur in young women between the ages of 20 and 30.

We talked to a doctor and found out the main points about this mysterious disease. What panic attacks are from a medical point of view, how to react to an attack and how you can prevent their recurrence in the future.

How do you know if a panic attack has happened to you?

When it comes to illness, the duration of an attack can last from 5 to 30 minutes. Often girls ask specialists if a panic attack can last for several hours. Unfortunately, yes, in rare cases it lasts up to several days. Only not every excitement we have for loved ones, before an important exam or report is considered a panic attack. You can distinguish an attack by a number of features and the nature of the manifestations.

Symptoms of a panic attack

As the name implies, the main symptom of panic attack in women is a sudden and seemingly gratuitous attack of anxiety and fear. It is accompanied by unpleasant sensations: palpitations, a rush of cold sweat, trembling in the legs, pain in the chest, difficulty in breathing and so on. Symptoms can be very different, the main thing is that they should disappear without a trace in 5-20 minutes, along with a sense of fear. But this is not always the case.

Panic attacks cannot be diagnosed on the basis of symptoms alone: you have to make sure that the symptoms are not caused by some other illness (e.g., a heart condition). The fact is that a panic attack itself usually does not cause any harm. The symptoms and signs of a panic attack in women are extremely unpleasant, but go away quite quickly.

The main trouble is the fear that the attack will happen again. For example, after a panic attack in the subway, a person may find it very difficult to get back on the subway. This becomes a real problem. This fear can be "self-fulfilling": the person is stressed, and the panic attack develops again under the influence of stress. In severe cases, agoraphobia can form - a condition when almost any interaction with society causes attacks of fear and discomfort, and the person is forced to spend his or her life locked up.

What is a panic attack in terms of physiology

Consider from a physiological point of view how a panic attack manifests itself. It is an unnecessarily violent response of the nervous system to an external stimulus, which in reality is not dangerous at all. All of its symptoms are part of the "fight or flight" defense mechanism that is triggered by, say, an encounter with a bear in the woods. In these cases, there is indeed a reason to be afraid, and the frequent heartbeat provides an opportunity to run faster. However, for some unclear reason, this mechanism is sometimes triggered "without a bear," that is, for no apparent reason.

Panic attacks occur most often in young women and are expressed by attacks of intense fear and anxiety.

Panic attacks have similar symptoms to vegetative vascular dystonia (VVD), and the treatment will also be identical. The latter is a disorder of the autonomic nervous system, which is described only in the domestic literature. Abroad, such a diagnosis is not widely used: it says nothing about the cause of the disease, characterizing only its mechanism.

If you read the comments of specialists on forums, there is no fundamental difference between IBS and panic attacks. Panic attacks reflect an acute attack of IBS or an attack becomes the most prominent symptom of dystonia, so they are often equated with each other.

Causes of panic attacks

In order to trigger a certain mechanism in the organism, some danger (imaginary, exaggerated by our perception) must arise, and the reaction to it develops into a panic attack. There is a release of adrenaline, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Blood rushes to the internal organs, blood pressure rises, causing a feeling of suffocation.

This is how panic attacks after a coronavirus manifest themselves. As a result of an infection, there is a lack of oxygen in the body, and damage to the vessels of the small circulatory system is not uncommon. Therefore, any increased strain is accompanied by a lack of oxygen.

As a rule, the causes that lead to panic attacks are physical or mental uncomfortable conditions. This can be excessive strain during training, overwork at work, or alcohol abuse. Often severe conflict situations and chronic stress lead to attacks. When anxiety intensifies, panic attacks and bodily manifestations also escalate. The heart beats strongly, it seems that the whole world is collapsing and it only gets worse.

Constant or intermittent neurosis and panic attacks make a person's life unbearable. In such a condition, it is difficult to work and to coexist peacefully with loved ones. The more a person is afraid to go out in public, the less positive emotions he or she experiences, locking himself or herself in his or her own fears. If there are examples of this disorder in the family, one should be especially attentive to the attacks and not ignore them.

What to do if a panic attack begins

At the moment when a panic attack occurs, there is no way to analyze the causes and reason rationally. But there are several ways to tell you what to do when you have a panic attack.

  • Take a few breaths into any container. It can be a plastic cup or even a bag - just breathe calmly into it. This will help you stabilize your breathing faster and help you cope with panic.
  • Turn your attention to something external. For example, count the columns in a subway station or the buttons on a passerby's jacket. Any concentration on extraneous objects will help you both recover and reconnect with reality and cope with a panic attack.
  • Stay where you are, or better yet, sit down. During a panic attack, try to limit your movements, if possible sit down and "freeze" as it were. This method, like the previous one, helps you concentrate on the world around you and not on your unpleasant sensations.
  • Talk to someone. Yes, it may seem strange at first glance, but a random passerby you turn to for help can help you simply by paying attention. Talking to another person will give you a sense of security and distract you from your panic attack.

5 tips for preventing panic attacks

Unfortunately, medicine does not know exactly why such attacks occur. That's why the advice on how to deal with panic attacks is more about lifestyle. Some things you can change and control. Take advantage of the general recommendations, and they will help you to avoid attacks in the future.

  1. Don't lead a sedentary lifestyle. There is a scientific assumption that the occurrence of panic attacks is due to a lack of endorphins, which our body produces when we exercise. So even a light aerobic workout and walking can make your life much easier.
  2. Try not to be nervous. Yes, we know that recommendation sounds ridiculous. How can you do without stress when life is so complicated and panic attacks are ready to show up on every occasion. But calm and only calm will save you from both attacks and other ailments.
  3. Don't drink coffee or cut back on your coffee intake. Caffeine in large quantities causes palpitations and can trigger a panic attack at the most unexpected moment.
  4. Be careful with alcohol. According to experts, alcoholic beverages are the strongest stimulants that can cause unexpected body reactions and panic attacks. Don't get addicted to them and try to avoid strong drinks.
  5. Be careful with your medications. Analyze whether a panic attack is related to taking a new medication. Sometimes a panic attack can be triggered by medications, so have your doctor analyze the situation.

How to treat panic attacks

If panic attacks don't go away in a few minutes and fears increase, it is better to see a doctor - he will prescribe treatment.

We have already found out that a single attack is not very dangerous, but sometimes the fear of its recurrence leads you into a vicious circle. If panic attacks have become frequent and you can no longer cope on your own, it is better to see a doctor. Before the consequences become too serious.

In cases where there is a permanent panic disorder, special breathing techniques, psychotherapy and antidepressants are used. Of course, all this happens under the supervision of a specialist who knows best how to get rid of panic attacks. The most effective combined treatment - medication and psychotherapy.

Since it is not fully understood exactly why panic attacks occur in individuals and mentally healthy people, experts do not guarantee that they will not recur. But if you begin to respond to them correctly, both your fear of them and your anxiety in general will diminish.

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